do wasps have minds?


“DO NOT live in interesting times”, warns an ancient Chinese saying. Too late, we are already doing so. Warning signals have recently appeared on, of all places, the sides of London buses – with some advising that God exists, others that He does not. The fact that 10,000 years of recorded debate has conspicuously failed to settle this emotive question is ominous indeed – we are teetering on the edge of an infinite and utterly indelible black hole of human ignorance, from which no agency can ever rescue us. Phew.

We’ve had upheavals like this before. Galileo had the temerity to insist that the earth moved, William Harvey that the blood circulated. Today’s issue also involves motion, and while appearing innocent enough at first glance, discloses the real void soon enough. We all know, from everyday observation, that living things move – animals more obviously than plants. What we don’t know, and never will know, is why.

Before you dismiss this as childishness, pay closer attention to the next insect which flies into your personal space. Why did that wasp fly in through your window? Is it going to turn round and fly out? If so, when? Is it going to eat your jam, or sting you? You don’t know. What’s more, no one knows. What’s worse, no one will ever know. You might say that the wasp makes up its own mind. But if you do, be careful to whisper it – else you’ll be excommunicated quicker than ever Galileo was – I’ve tried.

Everyone knows that living things move – animals faster than plants. No living thing is ever immobile – indeed that’s the prime facie evidence for being alive. It’s this self-movement however, which eviscerates ‘scientific’ knowledge. Unlike atoms, ‘self-movers’ follow their own rules, and ignore yours – all of them. Flying wasps, and indeed swine ’flu, by-pass the ‘laws’ of physics – and we’ll never know how – whence the blankness of our ignorance. The orthodox scientific response is to dream up ‘understandable’ external causes for this living motion, and then speculate spuriously about them – while fiercely insisting that spontaneous, self-originating movement is superstitious nonsense. The notion that living things act de novo, sui generis, off their own bat, disregarding preceding causative factors – all this dislocates theory – and promptly attracts the label ‘seditious’ or even ‘blasphemy’.

But suppose that this living motion had a subtle but vital link with our emotions – what then ? What if eliminating violence and war, and achieving lasting robust sanity requires us to engage with this anomaly? Suppose our understanding of our own spiritual aspirations and values depends on accepting that living processes initiate events and activities, that were never there before? In artistic circles, this is welcomed as ‘creativity’. In science, it isn’t.

My personal resolution comes via Quakerism which discourages such man-made schisms. Quakerism encourages me to retain my rationality, to make up my own mind, to seek a harmony between science and religion, between society and the sacred, and to disbelieve in the Supernatural if I want to, while finding the Natural awesome enough, as above. The gains are phenomenal, the penalties for delay huge – and the relief afterwards, palpable. What’s more, it offers an objective ethic which, unusually, carries its own objectively calibrated penalty – a veritable scientific basis for morality. Act responsibly, else you jeopardise survival or at least reduce your enjoyment thereof. All living organisms need to adapt to survive – they must exercise their responding-abilities, their responsibilities, else they lose out proportionately. Well, when do we start?

597 words     Monday, 10 August 2009

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